From Cincinnati: That’s a Nice Bridge They Want to Build; Too Bad Barack Obama and His EPA Probably Won’t Let It Happen
Note: This item went up at Watchdog.org earlier this morning under the title, “Lies, cowardice and the decline of the Brent Spence Bridge.” I appreciate the editors’ speedy review of my submission.
If you’re looking for a sign of American decline, consider the Brent Spence Bridge, the decades-old double-deck contraption carrying Interstate 71 and 75 traffic between Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky, is hopelessly outdated — in need of a complete rebuild for at least 20 years.
Now, thanks to a unilateral move by President Barack Obama, rehabilitation likely won’t happen for many more years — if ever.
According to the “Blocked by the Bridge” coalition, the Brent Spence was originally built to carry 80,000 vehicles a day, but currently carries 175,000, over twice as many. A 1986 revamp increased the number of lanes going across the bridge each way from three to four, but despite significant efforts since then to improve the highways leading to it on both sides of the Ohio River, serious daily traffic backups have been routine for at least the past two decades. A comprehensive project including a new bridge and redesigns of feeder highways will cost at least $2.4 billion.
The U.S. as a whole should have a great deal of interest in what happens, or doesn’t happen, with the Brent Spence. The coalition claims that 40,000 heavy trucks a day use the bridge, carrying an estimated four percent of the nation’s annual economic output.
President Barack Obama used the bridge as a political prop in September 2011. Speaking in the shadow of the 50 year-old structure, Obama opportunistically razzed House Speaker John Boehner, who is from the North Cincinnati suburb of West Chester, and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who represents Kentucky. The President told the pair to “help us rebuild this bridge” by passing yet another round of stimulus known at the time as the American Jobs Act, which the White House claimed would have included $50 billion for infrastructure improvements.
Boehner and the House Republican majority never passed Obama’s desired legislation, but that’s of little relevance. Numerous press reports at the time, including at the Cincinnati Enquirer, showed that despite the clearly intended misleading implication of Obama’s taunt, “the bridge looks no closer to getting the $2.4 billion needed to replace it than before it caught the White House’s attention.” The Enquirer further noted that even if the American Jobs Act had passed, “[I]t’s not clear funding included in the bill for stimulus or the creation of a national infrastructure bank would ever reach the bridge.”
The bigger question is this: Why, when it is of such obvious national importance, has rebuilding the Brent Spence failed for over two decades to get close enough to the top of Washington’s highway funding priority list? It’s especially galling because plenty of money was somehow found for fiascoes like Boston’s Big Dig. In 2011, there was more serious discussion about funding the absurd $500 million boondoggle which became known as Alaska’s “Bridge to Nowhere” — which most people still think was defeated once and for all in the middle of the previous decade, but wasn’t — than there was about Brent Spence.
The answer, of course, is politics.
While Republicans controlled the House from 1995 until 2006 under Newt Gingrich and then Dennis Hastert, Metro Cincinnati was largely shortchanged on highway funding. This seems odd, given that local congressional districts on both sides of the river had virtually unbroken Republican representation during that era. But there were three significant barriers, all self-created, with the first two tracing back to the fact that the Ohio River, and therefore the bridge itself, is in Kentucky, which would thus have the primary role in its rebuild, even though far more populous Ohio would arguably reap more in benefits.
First, local congressmen on the Ohio side of the river always seemed to have other priorities. Rob Portman, who represented the east side of Cincinnati and several counties to the east for over a decade, seemed more interested in showering money on rural towns and villages in his district, as a result earning mediocre ratings from fiscal watchdog groups. Steve Chabot, who has represented Cincinnati’s west side for almost all of the past two decades, largely reflects the occasional shortsightedness of his constituents, who generally take a “spend no money on anything, ever, no matter what” approach towards anything involving public funds. Above all others, Chabot should have been fighting hard all these years to get a Brent Spence rebuild funded. From what I can tell, he rarely if ever has.
Second, the state of Kentucky has an unfortunate history of benign neglect towards Northern Kentucky, largely treating it like a suburb of Cincinnati instead of as the integral part of the Bluegrass State it really is. Northern Kentucky congressmen during the past twenty years have not done enough to fight this treatment, and have also failed to directly push for a bridge replacement to the extent they should have.
Third, Boehner, who began the Gingrich era in good graces with the Speaker, had a hard fall from his perch after attempting to oust him in 1997 and then seeing the party lose five seats in the 1998 congressional elections. With his influence diminished, Boehner could do little to direct funding from House Transportation Committee Chairman Bud Shuster’s disgraceful highway pork dissemination operation.
After Democrats seized control of the House and Senate in the 2006 elections, and especially now with Obama in the White House, there is little genuine desire to fund a Brent Spence replacement. Advocates for the project are so desperate to see it begin that they’ve proposed making it a toll bridge. The trouble is that a $3 average toll per crossing ($1-$2 for cars, $4-$5 for trucks) would generate only about $190 million per year at today’s traffic levels, creating a payoff period with 3% bonds of about 16 years — assuming no more than $100 million in cost overruns (dream on). Average tolls any higher than that would reduce the bridge’s traffic and seriously clog other bridge-crossing alternatives. And speaking of traffic jams, it remains to be seen how the new structure could operate as a toll bridge, even in this era of EZ-passes, without itself causing tie-ups which would make today’s already nightmarish situation look like a picnic. And why, when building major roads has been seen as a legitimate federal government role since the 1950s, should Greater Cincinnati residents be singled out and forced to fund a project of such clear national importance?
Then, on March 15, Bloomberg News reported that “President Barack Obama is preparing to tell all federal agencies for the first time that they should consider the impact on global warming before approving major projects, from pipelines to highways.”
Wow. If you thought today’s “environmental impact statements” were bad, wait until you see them after global warming — which, by the way, hasn’t been happening for 17 years — is thrown into the mix. After all, a new Brent Spence accommodating more traffic would fewer emissions by cars stuck in traffic jams (good, even from the warmists’ standpoint), but more traffic in general means more emissions (giving warmists a club). Environmentalists will likely try to stop the project in its tracks — and speaking of tracks, they will also attempt to force light rail and other pie-in-the-sky alternatives no one will use onto the public. Projected costs will mount. Timeframes will lengthen. Total abandonment of the idea will become a real possibility.
From here, it appears that the Brent Spence rebuild project may languish for another decade, and possibly forever, becoming ever more costly and even more unlikely to get done than it already is. Sadly, that’s the way things are in our top-down, agenda-driven nation these days. It will stay that way until someone figures out how to rein in Washington’s bureaucrats and litigants gone wild.